Nawaz Sharif still wants peace talks with Talibans


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Despite a wave of deadly attacks, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he still wants to hold peace talks with the Taliban and said that a four-member team will pusue negotiations with the militants.

In a rare address to the National Assembly, he said ‘terrorism’ must be defeated, either by talks or force, and he was giving peace a last chance.

Pakistan's Taliban vowed more attacks after their leader was killed last year but say they are considering the offer.

Hakimullah Mehsud died in a US drone strike in November - his successor, Mullah Fazlullah, ruled out peace talks and promised revenge.

To many people in Pakistan the country's political leaders appear impotent in the face of the militant threat as the attacks have soared, correspondents say.

Mr Sharif, who was elected last May, is under mounting pressure to try to bring the violence under control.

“I am sure the whole nation would be behind the government if and when we launch a military operation against the terrorists - but I want to give peace a final chance,” he told members of parliament in a televised speech.

He said he, too, was tired of the attacks and he would do everything possible to bring peace.

Veteran journalists Rahimullah Yusufzai and Irfan Siddiqui, former ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand and a retired major in the ISI intelligence service, Amir Shah, will lead dialogue efforts and report back to the interior minister.

No timeframe was set for the talks to be held - and the prime minister stopped short of announcing any tough preconditions for negotiations.

Pakistan Taliban (TTP) spokesman Shahidullah Shahid welcomed the move by Mr Sharif and said the militants' central shura, or council, was meeting to consider the talks offer.

“We are ready for meaningful negotiations provided the government shows sincerity of purpose,” he said, the AFP news agency reports.

Mr Sharif's call for talks seems to have exposed divisions within the Taliban. The militants' leader in Punjab province, Asmatullah Muawiya, was quick to say he would take part in talks.

“We trust the negotiators nominated by the Pakistani government. We will participate in these talks, and also consult with other groups and persuade them to join the talks,” he told BBC Urdu's Asif Farooqi.

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He promised his fighters would end attacks once talks started, and added: “I am confident that the reaction of the TTP and Maulana Fazlullah will not be any different from us.”

Scores of people have been killed this month alone, many of them soldiers, as the militants attacked military and civilian targets across the country. The death toll has called into question Pakistan's strategy for dealing with militancy.

Some observers say a lack of concerted military action meant that an opportunity to take advantage of apparent militant divisions following Hakimullah Mehsud's death in early November was missed.

There is now a limited military operation in the North Waziristan tribal area.

But correspondents doubt the government and military in Islamabad want to launch a larger offensive at this stage in the militants' main sanctuary near the Afghan border.

Analysts believe Pakistan sees many of the militants based in North Waziristan as a ‘strategic asset’ in a year when foreign combat forces are leaving its neighbour.

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